The noun wit, which should not be confused with the nearly homophonous whit, for which see AWE's page on the homophones whit and wit, has several shades of meaning and many idiomatic phrases. The central meaning is to do with thought-processes - knowing and imagining, mainly. John Locke said in his An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (1690; cited OED) "Wit lying most in the assemblage of Ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety" xi. 68).
- The noun refers mostly to perceived intelligence, or 'quickness', in current English mostly in the realm of humour, particularly humour to do with playing with words ("the ability to use words or ideas in an amusing, clever, and imaginative way" (COBUILD). The adjective to describe this ability is witty, which is sometimes used ironically to mean that the speaker does not think the remark she has just heard is as amusing or funny as does the person who made it. ("Oh, very witty" is a disparaging remark, a put-down.) Wit can also be applied to a person, as "he is a great wit" (~ 'his conversation is very witty'); in Middle and Early Modern English, the term wit was commonly applied to a person of high intelligence and mental agility. Oscar Wilde was a famous wit at the end of the nineteenth century; occasionally Wits is used as a term, with an adjective, for group of people who enjoy intelligent conversationa and collaboration. Some examples are
- The University wits were a group of playwrights around the time of Shakespeare who had been to the Universities:Thomas Lodge, John Lyly, and George Peele (Oxford) and Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe (Cambridge).
- The Connecticut (later Hartford) Wits were an intellectual group of staff and students, including John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, Lemuel Hopkins and David Humphreys. They were federalist and calvinist, and influenced the new Constitution of the USA.
- Some people refer to Restoration Wits, satirical writers including The earl of Rochester, at the court of Charles IIin the second half of the seventeenth century.
- Sir William D'Avenant (1606–68) wrote a comedy called The Wits, published 1636.
- In earlier times, wit was primarily a faculty of seeing images quickly and imaginatively, very much as in the examples of conceits in Metaphysical poetry: "That quality of speech or writing which consists in the apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness" (OED). The poet Alexander Pope said in his An Essay on Criticism (1711):
- True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
- What oft was Thought, but ne'er before Exprest" (1`9; cited OED).
- Phrases in common use using the word wit include: to have the wit to do [something] is 'to have the ability to respond [to a situation]; to have one's wits about one is to be alert and responsive to one's circumstances, as to lose your wits is 'to go mad', 'to lose the power of rational thought'; Mother wit is 'common sense', 'the intelligence you were born with'; to live by one's wits is to survive [usually in unfortunate circumstances] by cleverness and opportunism (the implication is often 'with dubious honesty'. Something that is beyond the wit of man is something that is too difficult to understand, or a problem that is impossible to solve. To be at one's wits' end is to be perplexed beyond one's capacity to solve, or be completely at a loss, as a mother may be driven to her wit's end on a rainy day by the rampaging of young children
- Archaically, there were also
- 'To whit to whoo' (variously spelled and hyphenated) has been used since the sixteenth century as an onomatopoeic rendering of the call of an owl
- 'To wit' is derived from an archaic verb (see wit (verb)) meaning 'to know'. It is an English equivalent of the abbreviation common in academic writing in its Latin form as i.e., for id est, 'that is'.